“Doom—and Hope—in the Time of Bloom”
by Richard Speer
It’s cruelly incongruous that the COVID-19 updates filling our screens with reports of sickness and death have besieged us at the very moment Mother Nature is singing her rapturous songs of springtime. As we huddle inside pods of mandated isolation, many of us—especially those without the option of getting out much—find ourselves gazing through the window at the tulip trees, cherry blossoms, and daffodils we normally would admire al fresco. The cognitive dissonance feels unnatural and deeply dispiriting—all this anxiety, gloom, and doom in the season of bloom! As an art and classical music critic, I view this disconnect through the prism of well-known paintings, symphonies, and opera arias, which for centuries have exalted springtime and linked its bounties with the promise of new love, even as they’ve warned of nature’s flip side, its capacity for destruction.
Here in the Woodstock neighborhood where I’m quarantining, as I peer out my own window and take all-too-short walks among the flowering viburnum and lilies of the valley that line the avenues, my mind’s eye sees the floral still lifes of Dutch Baroque painter Jan Davidsz de Heem vases, bowls, and platters overflowing with fruits and blossoms of every variety. But in these troubling times, it’s worth remembering that de Heem sometimes painted skulls and other memento mori alongside his roses. In keeping with the vanitas genre of the 16th and 17th Centuries, he alerted viewers to the vanity of human pretensions in the face of impending death.
Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli’s “Primavera” (“Spring”), housed in the currently shuttered Uffizzi Museum in Florence, shows a luscious tableau in which hundreds of intricately rendered plants surround characters from Roman mythology as they enact an allegory of fecundity and eroticism. But just as in de Heem’s paintings, darker undercurrents underlie the surface optimism. Botticelli’s depiction of the god Zephyrus, about to abduct the nymph Chloris, is more than a little menacing. With his ghastly blue skin, the god of the west wind belies his mild reputation and grabs Chloris from above, even as weeds and wildflowers spew grotesquely from her mouth. In the original myth, things turn out well for these two, but Botticelli pointedly interjects a note of violence into an otherwise harmonious scene.
I have some personal musical traditions that I reenact each spring, but this year these traditions have rung a little hollow. At the beginning of April I like to put on my CD (yes, I still have CDs!) of Luciano Pavarotti singing Francesco Paolo Tosti’s 1882 art-song “Aprile.” “It is April, the season of love!” the tenor exclaims in the sunny cadences of Italian. “You will adorn yourself with roses and bluebells, and white butterflies will flutter around your hair!” In May I follow it up with the German tenor Fritz Wunderlich in Robert Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe (Loves of a Poet), which opens with an invocation of “the wondrously beautiful month of May, as all the buds sprang up…” It was in May, the song’s narrator recalls, that love swelled in his heart. The linkage of spring and love is ubiquitous in vocal music, perhaps nowhere more explicitly as in Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), with its rapturous tenor aria “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond.” In it, the warrior Siegmund posits an incestuous link between the archetypes of Love and Spring, painting them as fraternal twins who become lovers. Spring is presented as a male force who exhales fragrant, life-giving breath into forests and meadows while flowers sprout from his warm blood. He vanquishes the last vestiges of winter and batters his way through the symbolic door separating the seasons, at last becoming one with his female complement, Love herself. “The young couple greet one another with jubilation,” he proclaims. “United are Love and Spring!”
Giacomo Puccini made a similar point in only slightly less histrionic fashion in his immortal paean to star-crossed young love, La bohème. Mimì, a humble seamstress fated to die of tuberculosis, introduces herself to the poet Rodolfo by telling him about her life. She spends her days embroidering lilies and roses, “which speak of love and springtime,” and even in the depths of wintertime, sewing in a cold white room overlooking the rooftops of Paris, she holds the hope of spring close to her heart. “But when the thaw comes,” she daydreams as Puccini’s orchestra swells climactically, “the first sun is mine! The first kiss of April is mine!” Given the fate that awaits her in the final act—death by an insidious lung disease—it’s a moment of almost unbearable pathos. To listen to it in the midst of our current crisis feels like an exercise in emotional masochism.
Maybe what we should have in our ears instead is music that acknowledges tragedy or even catastrophe but allows for the possibility of rejuvenation. For that, it’s hard to top Alan Hovhaness’s Mount St. Helens Symphony, a work of uncommon grandeur, which deserves to be more widely known. The pounding timpani and woozy trombone glissandos in its bombastic third movement paint a musical picture of the mountain’s historic eruption in 1980. Toward the piece’s end, however, the tumult subsides and gives way to a bright, earnest fugue, evoking the regrowth of plant life that commenced only a few months after the smoke cleared. Hearing those triumphant cadences, you can almost see the shoots popping up, tenacious little phoenixes emerging from the ash as nature’s cycle of life, destruction, and renewal continues. My hope is that we can also reemerge and rejuvenate as soon as it’s truly safe to—that we can stride out into fresh air, unafraid and in the company of the friends and family we’ve sorely missed, and sing a song of thanks.
—Richard Speer has written about art, architecture, and opera for The Oregonian, Willamette Week, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, ARTnews, Opera News, and Salon.